Roldan was a projected top-five pick out of the University of Washington but dropped to No. 16 overall, where the Sounders traded up to select him.
Cristian Roldan wasn’t the first highly rated prospect to cannonball down a draft board, nor will he be the last. Another member could join the infamous fraternity Thursday at the MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore.
Last January, Roldan sat in the Philadelphia Convention Center surrounded by his agent, his brother and a smattering of potential draftees.
Roldan was a projected top-5 pick out of the University of Washington, a midfielder whose size was a question mark but whose passing instincts were not. Clad in a simple black-and-white suit picked out for the big day, Roldan sat up straight from the very first pick, with which expansion Orlando City selected forward Cyle Larin.
“I sat through the whole draft, for the first 14 picks, expecting my name to be called,” Roldan said. “Every single time.”
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It didn’t. But when the draft hit its teens, Roldan’s story started to morph from typical draft-day sad sack into something else – both in the moment and the aftermath.
Though he’d woken up that morning with an open mind, at least part of Roldan wanted to stay in Seattle. He already had a lease on a house in the U District with his college buddies and knew the route to the Sounders practice facility like the back of his hand.
In the part of the crowd reserved for each team’s front office, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey was not so subtly buzzing from table to table between picks.
“While Seattle was trying to make a move, I turned to my brother and said, ‘I’m the luckiest man alive,’” Roldan said.
The explanation for Roldan’s freefall is somewhere in the Venn diagram between a subpar performance at the MLS combine and league’s long-held distrust in undersized, creative midfielders.
The Sounders staff, though, having hosted Roldan at training sessions during his time at UW, still rated him highly. From the third pick onward, Lagerwey bounced from table to table trying to work out a deal that would move Seattle up from its slotted No. 19 pick.
“We talked to just about every team on the way down,” said Lagerwey, who had been named as Seattle’s new GM just weeks earlier. “… You get drafts where nothing happens and you get drafts where it gets crazy. That’s probably the craziest one I’ve ever been apart of.”
A willing trade partner finally arose at the No. 16 slot for a second-round pick and allocation money – a trade with Lagerwey’s former employer, Real Salt Lake.
“Relationships never hurt,” Lagerwey said, only slightly tongue in cheek. “There’s a trust there.”
Roldan played in 22 MLS games for the Sounders during his rookie season, the 20-year-old so establishing himself in the rotation that he even made three playoff appearances. His spot isn’t exactly secure, given all the veteran midfield reinforcements Seattle added this past summer. But having to prove himself all over again is nothing new for the unsung college recruit turned draft-day pariah.
“I’ve definitely moved on, but at the same time, there are a number of teams that passed up on me,” Roldan said. “It’s a difficult situation because you don’t want to feel like you have avenge or have hard feelings about different teams. But you just want to prove yourself.”
Not every player funnels his disappointment as efficiently.
Lagerwey references Enzo Martinez, a top-rated Uruguayan playmaker who slipped down to the 17th pick in the 2012 SuperDraft and never made a single appearance for RSL. Martinez, now 25, currently plies his trade for the Charlotte Independence of the USL.
“You don’t want to see any kid disappointed (on draft day),” Lagerwey said. “You see them react differently. There are kids who use it as motivation. Or do they never overcome that and never get over it?
“Cristian has been awesome. There hasn’t been one little bit of moping and pouting. It’s a credit to his reaction.”
On Thursday morning in Baltimore, a whole new batch of draftees will awkwardly knot ties and pull on suit jackets. They’ll take their places with friends and families, brace themselves for the announcement of each pick and hope they’re not the last one left standing.
“It’s a mixed deal, for sure,” Roldan said a year later. “You’re nervous, you’re scared. Your life changes. … I definitely remember it in a good way. I was very happy with how everything ended up for me. I think everybody should go in there with an open mind. I had no idea where I was going to end up. I thought I was going to end up on the East Coast.
“I quickly transferred what I brought to UW to Seattle and changed the way I played, changed the speed of play, because I felt very comfortable here. I think that’s a big deal. It feels like home.”
2016 MLS SuperDraft
When, where: 10 a.m. Thursday, Baltimore.
Live stream: MLSSoccer.com.
Sounders’ top pick: No. 15 overall.